Maurice Sendak was
born in a poor part of
Brooklyn in 1928.
Unlike Danny Kaye
here he never had the
upbeat personality of an
extrovert. As a kid he
sometimes stuttered and
never really “clicked”
with most people.
Maurice Sendak was an angry child and a morose
adult. What were the origins of this? We cannot
fully appreciate his art and accomplishments without
some understanding of his personality.
There are almost no
photos available of the
family or the childhood of
Maurice. He was the son
of Philip and Sadie
Sendak. Born in 1928.
Here we see mother Sadie,
sister Natalie, 8 years
older, brother Jack 6 years
older, and baby Maurice.
Maurice’s mother told him of hiding in a cellar
during Cossack attacks on her small Jewish
village in Poland. Young Maurice took note.
Here are some of the very
few early photos. His
brother Jack, top left in group
photo, served in the Pacific
and his sister Natalie’s fiancé
was killed in the war.
Between the ages of 2
and 4 Maurice suffered
from measles, double
pneumonia, and scarlet
fever. He rarely left the
a typical ’30s kid,’' he said in a
1988 Times interview. '‘We had
every disease. There was no
penicillin, there were no sulfa drugs,
and you almost died of any number
of what now are considered trivial
diseases. I have a memory of my
childhood of often wondering about
As a young child Maurice was
spooked by many things. He was
terrified of vacuum cleaners.
There was a whole
outside and Maurice
was pretty much
confined to his room.
Sendak’s family kept kosher. Across the hall from his apartment was
a Sicilian family – a boisterous fun loving group with great food and he
sometimes visited them. Young Maurice naively thought that they
were a different sect of Jews from his own family and was determined
to join that more appealing Jewish sect when he grew up.
A sickly child in a family with frequent moves, Maurice
had few friends and spent much time by himself, drawing and
reading comic books. He loved Mickey Mouse and the
Disney movie Fantasia. Later he felt that Disney had
changed Mickey and had given his early rough edges to
Donald Duck and that Mickey had become much too bland.
style was very
seeing Laurel and
Hardy movies and
musicals. He was
very angry about
his parents’ silence about how all his aunts and uncles
in Poland were killed in the Holocaust. He came to
feel that parents should be truthful with children and
this was a major aspect of his many books.
of the fears and
“I think it is unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, whiteclouded happy childhood for anybody. Childhood is a very, very tricky
business of surviving it. Because if one thing goes wrong or anything goes
wrong, and usually something goes wrong, then you are compromised as a
human being. You’re going to trip over that for a good part of your life.”
"They (children) have written to me. They trust me in a way, I daresay,
possibly more than they trust their parents. I'm not going to bullshit them. I'm
just not. And if they don't like what they hear, that's tough bananas."
Maurice felt from a
very early age that the
world was a scary and
Although he was only
3 ½ when the little
Lindbergh baby was
kidnapped, he later
claimed to have vivid
memories of that time
as well as the effect on
him when the baby was
“As a kid, all I
was death. But
you can't tell your
“I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets”
of the closet (to
himself) but we
know that he
took very great
pains for years
to hide from his
parents that he
A brief digressionSexual attraction between two people has obviously been around a
long time. Romantic love? Not so much. The idea of romantic love
is completely 100% absent from the most ancient literatures of the
Near East and Mediterranean – Egypt, Sumer, Babylonian, Canaan,
Crete, etc. It was introduced to this part of the world by invading
Indo-Europeans from elsewhere. It immediately caught on, about
1500 B.C., and from then on it permeates the literatures of Egypt,
Greece, Israel, etc. We might well speculate, as did the 17th century
French sage the Duke of Rochefoucauld, that:
‘There are people who would have never fallen in love if they never
heard of love.”
This seems to have been true for whole civilizations.
Maurice’s partner for 50 years was Dr.
Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst. He
wrote a book on art and psychoanalysis.
Maurice never told his parents he was
gay and said “All I wanted was to be
straight so my parents could be happy.
They never, never, never knew.“ Or at
least he thought so. “Finding out that I
was gay when I was older was a shock
and a disappointment”
It is quite ironic that
Maurice was so angry at
his parents for withholding
the truth from him about
events of World War II and
the presence of evil and
danger in the world, when
he was young, and went out
of his way to be honest in
his children’s books, and
yet he took great pains for
decades to conceal his gay
identity from his parents.
If children can handle the
truth, shouldn’t parents be
able to as well?
Finally, Maurice was an early atheist and that was very much not a
mainstream identity, especially back when he was a young man.
Sendak suffered from depression and took some solace from
the poetry of Emily Dickenson, which he said got him through
some rough patches. Van Gogh’s painting of an old man here
was new to me and shows despair.
In 1947 Maurice got a part time job doing store
windows at F.A.O. Schwarz.
In 1947 when he was 19 Maurice got a job
drawing illustrations for a popular science
book. His drawing style was still evolving.
In the 1950’s Sendak
illustrated books written by
others. Much later, when
these were re-issued, he got
credit on the cover, like this
example. These illustrations
had none of the energy and
edge of later books where he
wrote the text too.
This was the first
book where Sendak
both wrote and
illustrated the text.
He was fortunate to
have some editors
who recognized his
talent and supported
his early career.
He illustrated a series of
popular “Little Bear” books
Jack, here on
well as one
book that his
Steady work came when Sendak got a job with All-American Comics
Maurice’s job was to draw backgrounds in the Mutt and Jeff comics
Sendak continued to illustrate many books
written by others, which limited his creative
Maurice took courses at New York’s Art Student League, at
night. There are many famous alumni in its 138 year history.
Sendak’s career breakout point came with his 1963 book that
he also wrote. It deals very directly with childhood fears.
Child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim was all in favor of
telling children scary Grimm’s fairy tales but still thought
that Sendak’s book was too strong for young children. Since
then tens of millions of copies have been sold.
Originally Sendak planned to have the “wild things” be wild
horses but then he discovered that he could not draw horses.
So he changed it to wild “things” (monsters). The Yiddish
expression “Vilde Khaye” means “wild things” - especially
wild children and Maurice’s mother would sometimes call him
that. That is where he got the book title from.
In 1966 when he illustrated a
book by Isaac Singer his parents
felt that he had finally made it.
But soon, in 1967, disaster struck – his mother developed cancer, he had a
major heart attack at the age of 39, and his beloved dog Jenny died. In spite
of that he produced “In The Night Kitchen” in 1972. This was another
major success and also one of the most frequently banned books by
librarians, because the main character, a little boy, is shown in full frontal
nudity. Some librarians drew diapers on the boy. Lighten up, people!
Children have long known that there are differences
between boys and girls, so who is the librarian protecting by
drawing diapers on a nude boy? Adults?
In entertainment and advertising showing child nudity
seems to be acceptable as long as certain of what the British
call “the naughty bits” are not shown.
There is a theory of evolution that says that the transition
from ape to early man is marked by when the male switched
to striding with the right leg forward (to conceal the naughty
bits). All text books show that early man walked this way.
Maurice Sendak would have none of this tiptoeing around
Everyone knows what a nude little boy looks like and in “The
Night Kitchen” he simply did not shirk from it. Good for him!
In 1987 PBS had a 6 minute animated film
made based on Sendak’s art work in the
book. It was the work of the Czech based
film maker Gene Deitch, who had long
walks with Sendak in Prague to discuss the
project. The result, which we will see now,
captures well the surreal quality of a child’s
imagination that is shown in the book.
Sendak said that the Hitler-esque characters
and their attempt to bake the boy in an oven
were Holocaust references
He also told Deitch that the book reflects
his own relationship to his parents, his own
inner life, the birth of his fantasy life and his
6 minute animated film
Sendak freely acknowledged his influence debt to sources
like the 1905 Little Nemo Sunday comic strip.
Sendak had many years of therapy. His long time
partner was a psychoanalyst. Maurice was basically
a very unhappy self-absorbed personality.
A happy moment.
Sendak moved from
New York City to
Ridgefield, CT in
1972. He worked
long hours and had
an isolated life. He
was shy and did not
“Posters and other occasional pieces make up a very small part of
my picture-making, but, paradoxically, I have a disproportionate
affection for these easy images. Why “easy”? They came easy. They
were painted in rare moments of relaxation. Often, they were the
happy summing up of conglomerate emotions and ideas that had
previously been distilled into picture books and theatrical
productions. Simply, they were fun to do.”
Other books followed and
Sendak won many awards.
He explored themes of
jealousy, fears of
abandonment, danger, etc.
This book shown here
drew on his memories of
the Lindbergh kidnapping
case, which terrified him as
After being involved in many more books than can be
listed here, Maurice moved on to designing sets for opera.
He had always loved opera and like the challenge of
creating for a new medium.
Sendak had already illustrated some books about ballet
and opera and now he moved on to stage sized costumes
Original cast, in Theresienstadt
Sendak and his long time friend Tony Kushner
wrote a book based on an opera by the Jewish Czech
composer Hans Krasa, originally performed by the
children of Theresienstadt concentration camp.
This Brundibár production was filmed for a Nazi
propaganda film (The Führer Gives the Jews a
City). All of the participants in the Theresienstadt
production were herded into cattle trucks and sent to
Auschwitz as soon as filming was finished. Most
were gassed immediately upon arrival, including the
children, the composer Krása, the director, and the
Kushner and Sendak also produced a version of
the original opera and it has been quite successful.
The drawings in the
book are based on the
dark corners of
Prague’s Malá Strana,
Hradčany and Josefov
and architectural visual
references can be seen
throughout the book.
Sendak’s 1998 sets and costumes for the opera “Hansel and Gretel”
"My main purpose in doing this opera, and doing it now, at this age , is that I'm
overwhelmed by the abuse of children. Hansel and Gretel is a powerful analogy to modern day
child abandonment and cruelty, an opera about pertinent forms of neglect. To mount it in a
cutesy German forest is to limit it. Why is the fairy tale so famous? Because it's terrifying."
His work became more melancholy as the Holocaust began
emerging as a more powerful force — sometimes overtly,
sometimes less so. The work gives children the power to conquer
through art and ingenuity, reminding parents of the complicated
responsibility that requires them to be hopeful but realistic about
the terrible wild things out there.
“ This was so absolutely, beautifully, rendered for me when I
was very young and I saw ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ There’s a scene
…when Dorothy is imprisoned in the room with the Wicked
Witch, and the witch takes the hourglass and turns it over and
says: You see that? That’s how much longer you’ve got to be
'‘And Dorothy says, I’m frightened, I’m frightened, and then the
crystal ball shows Auntie Em, and Auntie Em is saying, Dorothy,
Dorothy, where are you? and Dorothy hovers over it and says:
I’m here in Oz, Auntie Em. I’m locked up in the witch’s castle.
Don’t go away, I’m frightened. And I remember that when my
sister took me I burst into tears. I knew just what it meant, which
was that a mother and child can be in the same room and want to
help each other, and they cannot. Even though they were face to
face, the crystal ball separated them. Something separates people
now and then. And I think it’s that moment that interests me, and
Video clip from the “Wizard of Oz”
In 1971 Sendak taught a course at Yale
on children’s books. A student said that
“Maurice came overflowing with
historical information and critical
commentary that, in its concentrated
delivery, defied note-taking.”
While Sendak made his students feel as
if they were “sharing in his life” as he
recounted anecdotes of friends and
colleagues like Edward Gorey and his
magnificent editor and champion
Ursala Nordstrom. “only later did the
limits of his openness become clear”:
Sendak didn’t once mention the love of
his life and his partner of many years,
Eugene Glynn, to whom Sendak’s
moving posthumous love letter is
Maurice Sendak, humanist
He was an atheist and a very committed advocate
for dealing honestly with children and acknowledging
their fears and concerns.
their earliest years
children live on familiar
terms with disrupting
emotions, fear and anxiety
are an intrinsic part of
their everyday lives, they
continually cope with
frustrations as best they
can. And it is through
fantasy that children
achieve catharsis. It is the
best means they have for
taming Wild Things”
“If there's anything I'm proud
of in my work--it's not that I
draw better; there's so many
better graphic artists than me-or that I write better, no. It's-and I'm not saying I know the
truth, because what the hell is
that? But what I got is … a
kind of fierce honesty, to not let
the kid down, to not let the kid
get punished, to not suffer the
child to be dealt with in a
boring, simpering, crushing-ofthe-spirit kind of way.”
“I cry a lot
because I miss
die and I can't
me and I love
“I want to be alone and work until the day my heads hits the
drawing table and I'm dead. Kaput. I feel very much like I want to be
with my brother and sister again. They're nowhere. I know they're
nowhere and they don't exist, but if nowhere means that's where they
are, that's where I want to be.” He died in 2012 at the age of 83.
His partner of 50 years died in 2007
Gene Deitch, an American, had
a Czech wife and lived in Prague
for very many years. He became
quite close to Sendak when they
worked together on various
projects. Here is what he said
about Sendak towards the end of
his life -
“In recent interviews, Maurice indulged in purposely
outrageous remarks, often in contradiction to things he said or
wrote to me. He relished shocking interviewers.” Keep that
in mind when you view internet videos of Sendak talking.
5 minute interview with Sendak just before he died